A New York writer learns about food, the old-fashioned way

Stephanie Rosenbaum ’90 is the author of Cooking with Kids: Fun Food (Williams-Sonoma), Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books), and The Anti-Bride Guide: Tying the Knot Outside the Box (Chronicle Books).

It’s early on a cool northern California morning, and I’m standing in front of a steaming pile of manure with a job to do.

Just a few weeks ago, work meant jabbing a MetroCard through a New York City subway turnstile — an editor and writer headed to a computer in a cubicle. But this morning, my occupation is here under the wild plum trees, forking straw-laced horse droppings into a rusted-out blue wheelbarrow.

By lunchtime, the four of us — a San Francisco elementary schoolteacher, a Forest Service worker who has farmed in Alaska and Arizona, an outdoor educator fresh from leading youth trips through Yosemite, and yours truly, a Class of ’90 English major — have achieved our goal, a waist-high, 6-by-6 compost pile layered like a torte with straw, manure, juicy weeds, old lettuce, and spent coffee grounds from a nearby campus café. Les Fleurs du Merde, we name it, and I wonder what Baudelaire’s ghost would think of this association with the rank muck of the New World.

This is life as an apprentice at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Thirty-eight of us, ranging in age from 19 to 70, arrived here in April for an intensive, six-month plunge into the philosophy, practice, and business of organic farming. Our classroom is a 25-acre fold of land tucked between the redwoods and the meadows, containing gardens, fields, and orchards established some 30 years ago. The hands-on part of the program starts the very first morning, as we head into the fields with our freshly sharpened spades, ready to hack down the luxuriant, shoulder-high cover crops that were planted last fall to hold back erosion during the winter rains. Twice a week, we squeeze together on folding chairs inside a wooden one-room building for lectures and Power Point presentations on all things agricultural, from botanical classifications to how to file a Schedule-F farm profit-and-loss tax form.

Some of us have come straight from family farms, hoping to learn more about organics. Many have been teachers, community activists, or outdoor-education leaders. Mwale is a farm extension agent in Zambia; Lu Jing is a grad student in bioengineering in Beijing. Herb is a retired surgeon turned Los Angeles school gardener, while Linn has been developing a farm and eco-retreat in Costa Rica. Me, I’m an urban food writer looking to get back to the basics.

After more than a decade as a restaurant critic and food writer in San Francisco and New York, I got burned out chasing the next hot thing. Dehydrated olives, reconstituted into edible paper: Who cares? Sure, food can be an artistic medium. But too often, issues of sustenance and nourishment, health and sustainability get left out of the hustle, unless they, too, can get packaged as a trend. Sitting in front of my laptop on a sweaty August morning, longing for those mild northern California days, I thought: Why not step off the concrete and get dirty for a change? I’d had community garden plots before, little boxes no bigger than an IKEA coffee table. What would it be like to have real room to dig and grow? How could I write about the push to get consumers to “buy fresh, buy local” without knowing what it really takes to get a head of lettuce from seed to table?

Working here, I’m learning just how much food can be grown in small spaces. It’s a useful lesson for city living, especially now that more and more journalists, community activists, and everyday citizens are linking concerns over food safety and security — meaning the access that all of us have to healthy food options — with a rising interest in knowing how, where, and by whom our food is being grown.

In one bed, 100 feet long by 4 feet wide, we’ll plant six rows of carrot seed, harvesting some 3,000 carrots three months later. Cut that down to a quarter — a mere 100 square feet, the size of the tent in which I have been living these past few months — and, given adequate fertility, you could be handing out close to 100 supermarket-sized bunches of organic carrots in just 90 days. Our hand-tilled garden has less than an acre under cultivation; the tractor-planted farm fields and orchards are spread over a little more than seven acres. It’s a tiny toy farm compared to the vast commercial spreads in the nearby Pajaro and Salinas valleys. But what we lack in space, we more than make up for in diversity.

We sow a remarkable number of flowers, fruits, herbs, and vegetables throughout our main spring-to-fall growing season. Without the quick fix of conventional pesticides and fertilizers, we have to keep the whole ecosystem of the farm in balance in order to resist pests and diseases. Biodiversity is our greatest asset. Fruit trees, shade trees, perennial flowers, native plants, and even weeds all play their part. Some are windbreaks and sources of cool shade for the farm cats to loll in on hot afternoons. Others are habitats for birds and beneficial insects; on a warm day, every lavender bush is abuzz with hundreds of bees, crucial pollinators for much of what we grow. This is the principle of agroecology: to make agriculture work like nature, rather than trying to bend nature to the demands of agriculture.

This little square of nature isn’t just our classroom; it’s also our home. In a row of tents pitched under the cypress trees, we fall asleep to the yips of coyotes up along the ridge, and wake up to the chatter of scrub jays and, less bucolically, the gear-grinding of backhoes preparing for high-priced faculty housing right on the other side of the fence. Two indoor bathrooms (only one with a shower) are some 500 yards away; I suspect the nearby plum orchard receives many nighttime visits. The meals, cooked in turn by pairs of apprentices, are a lot like eating at Princeton’s 2-D co-op every day. Mornings and evenings are foggy and chilly; afternoons can get blazingly hot. And that same Bob Marley mix from lawn parties in 1988 is in heavy rotation on the farm center stereo.

But then there’s the view, straight out over the flowering potato and pepper plants to the broad blue expanse of Monterey Bay. And the warm strawberries we can pick on the way to breakfast, or the sun-ripened peaches that become hot homemade pie or jars of jam on Sunday afternoon. Digging around for the first potatoes in July, we pull out fist-sized treasures with bright magenta-pink skins. They make the best home fries I’ve ever tasted. In this, we’re rich.

And come the end of October, along with a certificate in ecological horticulture, I’ll have the tools to bring this agricultural-academic knowledge back into the city, to share and teach and make some corner of the city just a little bit greener, one carrot at a time.